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NFL Preview - Buffalo (1-8) at Cincinnati (2-7)
By Danny Cohen, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - As the 2010 NFL season glides past its midway point, several teams have to face the sobering fact that they are playing more for the future than the present.
Unfortunately for fans of both Buffalo and Cincinnati, the Bills and Bengals come into Sunday's contest at Paul Brown Stadium as the two worst teams in the AFC, with just three combined wins among them.
While the Bills came into this season with a new head coach and tempered expectations, some Bengals -- most notably outspoken wide receiver Chad Ochocinco -- were all but guaranteeing the team's first Super Bowl appearance since 1988. What Ochocinco and may others didn't expect was a six-game losing streak that has knocked them out of playoff contention.
It's not as if the opposition has been blowing out the Bengals; each of their six losses during the stretch have been by eight points or fewer. Last week Cincinnati suffered a 23-17 defeat at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts after committing five turnovers, including three interceptions by a struggling Carson Palmer.
The Bengals fell into an early 17-0 hole against Indianapolis, which forced Cincinnati to take more chances in the passing game.
"The advantage is in their hands when you have (Dwight) Freeney and (Robert) Mathis on the edge," Palmer said in reference to the Colts' two pass rushers. "If you have to throw the ball a lot, you are playing into one of their strengths."
If Cincinnati is to snap out of its funk, however, this is the week to do it. Each of its last five games have come against a team that currently sports a winning record, and the sixth -- the Cleveland Browns -- just took the 7-2 New York Jets to overtime after routing AFC East co-leader New England.
Should the Bengals fail to win against the only team in the AFC that is worse than they are, it won't get much easier. In their final six games, they play the Jets, New Orleans (6-3), Pittsburgh (6-3), Cleveland (3-6), San Diego (4-5) and Baltimore (6-3).
As a side story to this game, colorful Cincinnati wide receiver Terrell Owens will make his first appearance against Buffalo since he played for them during the 2009 season. The 36-year-old struggled to find a job last season and signed on with the Bills for one year, catching 55 passes for 829 yards and five touchdowns. He left Buffalo after a 6-10 campaign and joined the Bengals, where has already eclipsed last season's marks with 59 catches, 834 yards and seven scores.
The Bills, meanwhile, are trying to ride the momentum of last week's 14-12 victory over the Detroit Lions, becoming the last team in the NFL to notch its first win of the season.
Fred Jackson scored both touchdowns for the Bills, while quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick passed for 146 yards and a score, though Buffalo needed to stop a two-point conversion attempt with 14 seconds left to record the victory.
"We were hanging on for dear life," Fitzpatrick said. "It seemed like that last drive took forever, but we found a way to win. This one we've been waiting a long time for, but it doesn't make it any less special that it came down to the end."
Despite the Bills' dismal 1-8 mark, they have been highly competitive. But like their opponents this week, they've been unable to win their close games. Prior to the victory over the Lions, Buffalo had lost three consecutive games by three points apiece and came within 10 points or fewer on three other occasions.
When you look at the numbers, it's really no surprise that the Bills are where they are. In terms of yards gained, they boast the 28th-ranked offense and 26th-ranked defense out of 32 teams, and the season-opening quarterback/running back combination of Trent Edwards and Marshawn Lynch are no longer playing in Buffalo.
These two teams don't have much for which to play other than pride, and both will want to get a victory in what is a winnable game for each club.
Buffalo holds a 14-10 lead in its all-time regular-season series with Cincinnati and has won nine consecutive times against the Bengals, the most recent being a 33-21 home victory during Week 9 of the 2007 season. The Bills have prevailed in each of their last three stops in Cincinnati, including a 37-27 verdict in 2005, and the Bengals haven't beaten Buffalo in a non-playoff setting since a win at Riverfront Stadium in 1988.
These clubs have also met twice in the postseason, with the Bengals winning on both occasions. Cincinnati earned a 28-21 decision in a 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff and dealt the Bills a 21-10 loss at Riverfront Stadium in the 1988 AFC Championship.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is 0-4 against the Bills in his career, while Buffalo's Chan Gailey will be opposing both Lewis and Cincinnati for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
The Bills average just 303 yards per game on offense, which is just 26th in the league. While it's not a recipe for success, they were able to beat Detroit last week despite gaining only 288 total yards.
Fitzpatrick, a former starter for Cincinnati in 2008 when Palmer was injured, has done a decent job since taking over for Edwards in Week 3. He's completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 1,645 yards with 14 touchdowns and only seven interceptions in seven games. He might have some trouble with the Bengals, who are currently ranked 12th in the league in passing yards allowed at 214 per game.
Based on the current yardage rankings, this will be Fitzpatrick's toughest test of the season. Cincinnati's pass defense had a great week last week, holding Peyton Manning to a season-low 185 passing yards. Despite not recording an interception, they held Manning without a touchdown pass for only the second time this season. Former University of Michigan standout Leon Hall is the team's best cover corner, and he leads the Bengals with four interceptions and seven passes defensed.
However, Fitzpatrick may be able to stay upright this week, since the Bengals' defensive line has only nine sacks this season -- 31st in the NFL. The Bills have yielded 20 sacks, which is near the NFL's average.
Through the air, Fitzpatrick's favorite target has been former seventh-round pick Steve Johnson, who has 44 receptions for 591 yards and six touchdowns after catching just 12 balls in his first two seasons. Lee Evans (31 catches, 425 yards, four touchdowns) also provides a deep threat.
On the ground, Buffalo ranks 15th with 110.9 rushing yards per game, while Cincinnati is 22nd on defense with 115.8 yards allowed each game. Despite the presence of rookie C.J. Spiller, the Bills continue to give a majority of the carries to Jackson, who notched his best game of the season last week with 133 yards rushing, 37 yards receiving and two scores. It was his first 100-yard game of the season, and he may be able to get another with Spiller out for this week with a hamstring issue. The Bengals have allowed 100 rushing yards or more in seven games this season.
WHEN THE BENGALS HAVE THE BALL
Cincinnati ranks 15th in the NFL with 344.6 yards of offense per game, but its 19 turnovers are second-worst in the AFC and the team is coming off a contest where it gave the ball away a season-high five times.
The primary culprit of the Bengals' turnover woes is Palmer, whose numbers are deceiving when one accounts for his 11 interceptions in nine games. He's still completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 2,395 yards and 16 touchdowns, but his miscues are part of the reason the 2010 campaign has been a failure thus far.
Despite that, Palmer is playing the right team to cure his turnover troubles, as the Bills are last in the league with just eight turnovers forced, including only two interceptions. Additionally, the Bengals still sport one of the more productive wide receiving tandems in Ochocinco and Owens. The duo has combined for nearly 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns and need to be accounted for at all times.
Palmer may also be able to remain upright, as the Bengals have yielded only 17 sacks this season, which is slightly above average. The Bills, meanwhile, have recorded only 13 sacks, not much better than their counterparts in Cincinnati, and will be without defensive end Spencer Johnson, who is out with a hamstring injury.
Buffalo gives up only 207 yards through the air -- seventh in the NFL -- but that may be because teams choose to run most of the time. The Bills' rushing defense is by far the worst in the NFL, giving up nearly 167 yards per game. Tampa Bay is 31st, and they give up 23 fewer yards a game on the ground than Buffalo.
A visit from the Bills may be exactly what cures the Bengals' rushing woes, as they are ranked 26th in the league with only 92.6 yards per game. Running back Cedric Benson, who ran for a career-high 1,251 yards in just 13 games last season, has only 623 yards through nine contests in 2010. He's also fumbled four times -- losing three -- after coughing up the ball only once in all of 2009.
Despite the lack of playoff implications in this matchup, there are still fantasy points to be had. On Cincinnati's side, Benson is a must-start, as he's due to have possibly his biggest fantasy day of the season against the league's worst rushing defense.
Additionally, Ochocinco and Owens are always solid options, and Palmer may be averse to the turnovers this week since Buffalo has forced less than one per game.
On Buffalo's side, Jackson should be inserted into the starting lineup. With Spiller out due to injury and Cincinnati's suspect run defense, he could be line for his second straight 100-yard game. Buffalo's passing game shouldn't be expected to have a big day against Hall and the Bengals' pass defense, so it may be wise to look elsewhere for quarterback and wide receiver options.
In the battle of the two worst teams in the AFC, anything could really happen, especially in this year's NFL where no team is dominant or a doormat. Expect this game to feature a big dose of both running attacks and to stay close throughout. The Bengals are absolutely desperate for a win and know that if they don't get it here, they might not get one for the rest of the season. Buffalo will stay close because it has rarely been blown out this season, but the six-game losing streak for Cincinnati will come to an end.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 31, Bills 28
11/18 15:22:42 ET